Savoring summer vacation

Deep summer is when laziness finds respectability.” — Sam keen

SunfaceAfter taping her last television show in 2011, Oprah Winfrey announced on Facebook that she was planning to kick back and savor her free time. “My new ambition is to make a treasure of the small moments,” she wrote.

Thats not what youd expect from the super-achieving Winfrey – or from anyone else whos built a career out of interviewing A-list celebrities and unveiling The Next Big Thing. But her ambition to play small, at least for a little while, left a deep impression on me.

Like everyone else in Michigan, I look forward to summer all year long. According to my day planner, there are nine precious weeks left – weeks that will fly off our calendars faster than a Sea-Doo on Lake Michigan.

Taking inventory of what Ive accomplished since June, I realize, sadly, how little time Ive spent puttering in the herb garden or chilling out with a “beach read” in hand.  Real life keeps getting in the way. So, before summer packs up its beach bag and clears out for a new school term, I’m borrowing a page from Oprah and indulging in some low-tech, simple summer pleasures. Heres the rest of the plan:

Summer vacation unplugged

–Ill reread Ray Bradburys classic, Dandelion Wine, a semi-autobiographical novel chronicling the authors magical summer of 1928. Unabashedly nostalgic, the novel is both a love letter to summer freedom and a sonnet to childhood innocence. You can borrow a copy from your local library, then read parts aloud to your kids on the front porch swing if youre lucky enough to have one.

— At least once a week, Ill splurge on a cup of chocolate-peanut butter ice cream from the local Baskin Robbins. (Note to self: If I walk or ride my bike to the shop, the splurge will be easier to justify.)

— In lieu of pulling weeds, or fretting over slug damage, Ill admire whats blooming in the garden.

— Ill make at least one more trip to northern Michigan, where Ill hunt for Petoskey stones, skipping stones, beach glass, and perfect pieces of driftwood.

— As author Sam Keen wrote: “Deep summer is when laziness finds respectability.” Which is another good excuse for brain candy. With or without the beach, Ill crash in a deck chair with a beach-worthy novel and a stack of fashion magazines that have little or no redeeming social value.

— Movies are another wonderful way to escape reality, not to mention sweltering temperatures. To cool off last week, I laughed my way through “The Heat” with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. A few days later, I was first in line to see “The Conjuring” — exceptionally scary and free of gratuitous gore.

— I promise to “unplug” from technology at least one day a week. That means no compulsive Web surfing; less e-mail checking. Instead, Ill indulge in some local “people-watching” at one of Royal Oaks outdoor cafes.

The benefits of chilling out

Psychologists agree that even a day or two of unstructured loafing ultimately enhances our productivity long after we return to work.

“Some of the best thinking we do happens when the conscious mind is on a sabbatical,” Veronique Vienne notes in The Art of Doing Nothing (Clarkston Potter; $17). She reminds us that Thomas Edison discovered the light bulb filament “while idly rolling kerosene residue between his fingers.”  Likewise, Einstein pondered the mysteries of the universe with a cat in his lap.

“So dont get up from your lawn chair yet,” Vienne advises. “Contribute to science. Stay prone as long as you can.”

Of course, its always fun to anticipate and celebrate the major milestones of our lives. But we need a reprieve from pithy graduation speeches about beginnings and endings. And we need a break from wedding receptions, family reunions, baby showers and other “special” summer events that require a gift or a new outfit or another dish to pass. We need flip flops and ordinary time.

Come August, I want to say good-bye to summer knowing that Ive squeezed every last drop of its sweetness and savored it all.

Top photo credit: Cindy La Ferle

Call of the wild

Camping is nature’s way of promoting the motel industry.”  ~Dave Barry, The Only Travel Guide You’ll Ever Need

A sentimental favorite of mine, this essay originally appeared in The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) Sunday Magazine in 1996, and was republished last year in Wild with Child: Adventures of Families in the Great Outdoors by Jennifer Bove. Have you been camping yet this summer?

Mother and Son Answer the Call of the Wild

Thanks to my previous career as a travel editor, I know how to rate a mattress and a motel bathroom. I’m right at home in a wicker rocker on the front porch of a country inn, sipping a tall glass of iced tea while watching the sun dip behind a mountain range.

But until my son joined Cub Scouts two years ago, my getaways did not include wilderness adventures. To me, communing with nature meant reading Thoreau or potting begonias. Spending a weekend in the woods of rural Michigan — with a chorus of bull frogs, sundry snakes, ticks, two dozen little boys and their suburban-Detroit mothers — didn’t sound like my idea of a good time.

Like most parents, however, I’ve learned to adapt. And while I am not exactly what you’d call a happy camper, the Scouts have taught me to appreciate the Great Outdoors. In fact, this fall I’ll embark on my third annual “Mom & Me” camping weekend with Nate’s pack.

In addition to strengthening mother-son relationships, Mom & Me weekends were designed to refute the theory that women will not sleep with insects.

I’ve also learned that the travel writer’s motto, “Always pack light,” doesn’t apply to north woods camping. It’s much wiser to cram your suitcase with back-up sets of everything, including socks and underwear, and to expect emergencies. On our first outing, for instance, Nate fell into a bog within fifteen minutes of our arrival at the camp site. He had to borrow my hiking boots until his own dried out the next day. Meanwhile, I had no choice but to tour the swamp in soggy tennis shoes.

“These weekends really are an endurance test for the parents,” one mom confided, half-seriously.

The following year I stuffed half a dozen pairs of boots into the back of our Jeep, but forgot my own raincoat. Of course, that was the weekend it poured and poured …and poured.

I’ll never forget the sight of six devoted moms building a campfire in the evening drizzle. (We were determined to do this thing right: We were going to roast every single hot dog and melt every marshmallow we’d hauled along with our Dura-flame logs.) Our boys, however, were smart enough to hide from the rain. Searching the campground by flashlight, we finally found them in one of the cabins playing Life, the board game of the moment.

“Bring the hot dogs in here,” one nine-year-old demanded as he scooted his car-shaped marker across the board. “I’m getting ready to sell one of my houses and I’m having a midlife crisis!”

If we’re very lucky, the hike to the public restrooms is only 15 minutes (uphill) from our campsite. The trick, I found, is to keep a spare flashlight in your sleeping bag so that you can grab it quickly if nature calls at 2:00 a.m. — which isn’t unusual for middle-aged moms.

Nobody sleeps much on these weekends. The kids are buzzing on caffeine, having consumed several gallons of Pepsi and Mountain Dew. The moms, smelling like a bonfire and desperately wishing for one hot shower, toss fitfully in their sleeping bags while the boys play flashlight games and tell ghost stories.

“Did you hear the one about the one-eyed man who went berserk in the north woods and was NEVER FOUND…?”

After two nights like these, the long drive back on Sunday is tolerable only with a mug of instant coffee and the promise of a warm bath. Completely exhausted, Nate and I typically ride home in silence.

But on the way home from last October’s trip, he mumbled, “Thanks for the weekend, Mom. Great weekend.” Brief but sincere, it was a rare expression of unprompted gratitude.

Catching a glimpse of myself in the rear-view mirror, I remembered I wasn’t wearing any makeup. My eyes looked older, and in an instant I saw the years racing past me like the cars on the expressway. My boy looked older, too, his lanky body slouched on the seat next to me.

Suddenly, that weekend — my endurance test — seemed awfully short. I was proud of myself for hiking through swamps and building fires in the rain. — Cindy La Ferle, August 1996

— A slightly different version of this essay is included in my own essay collection, Writing Home. Photos by Cindy La Ferle —